In the spotlight

The place of child nutrition in food sovereignty

In our political work to raise awareness, educate and mobilize for food sovereignty, what importance do we attach to feeding our daughters and sons around us? Is this a minor issue, of interest only to mothers? Below are some thoughts on why the topic of child nutrition and the active participation, in their own right, of children in our movement is vital for the future of food sovereignty.

From malnutrition to childhood obesity – what is the dominant discourse?

The public discourse on nutrition and childhood has been dominated by a medical-scientific approach: for decades, the main concern has been undernutrition, so the debate has centered mainly on anthropometric measures such as statistics about weight index by height and age or vitamin deficiency. Recently, increasing rates of global obesity and the overweight have started attracting public attention. FAO’s latest report on The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) states that although malnutrition rates continue to decline, the obesity rate continues to rise. The issue of childhood obesity is therefore likely to become a priority issue on the policy agenda of international agencies.

Obese and overweight children and adults were often seen as problems of high-income countries. However, the prevalence of these disorders is growing in low and middle-income countries, mainly in urban areas. In Africa, the number of overweight and obese girls has doubled from 5.4 million in 1990 to 10.6 million in 2014. In 2014, about half of all overweight girls were from Asia, while in Mexico it is estimated that about 30 per cent of girls are overweight.

What factors explain this pandemic? There are different approaches. On the one hand, international institutions and agencies propagate an individualistic and moralist approach that subtly blames families for not feeding children properly and letting them watch television or the Internet all day long instead of playing sports. According to this approach, the urban lifestyle, with its specific organization of the day, its types of work and its social relations, has changed “traditional” (read “healthy”) dietary habits and replaced them with more “modern” habits, generated by so-called development. The solution proposed by this approach is to better inform and educate consumers so that they make healthier food choices in the supermarkets and encourage them to exercise.

The geopolitics of the “Western” regime

Obviously, this approach does not question the historical, political, socio-economic and cultural determinants that determine the type of food produced, nor the factors that shape the dietary habits of communities. It is an approach that ignores power relations, oppression and discrimination. It does not ask who makes the decisions and how the urban or “western” diet was imposed on the whole world, a diet rich in fats, sugars, refined carbohydrates, meat and animal products but low in vegetables, legumes and coarse grains. The increase in consumption of these products is closely linked to the agricultural policies of the world’s major agricultural powers. These policies introduced a series of incentives (production subsidies, public research, export subsidies), which led to a concentration of production on basic cereals (wheat, maize, rice) and oilseeds. On the other hand, the liberalization of trade in agri-food products and fisheries, as well as the promotion of foreign investment in the entire food chain, have played a central role in the expansion of the role of transnational corporations throughout the food chain.

This global food system made it possible for the diet of “junk food” or highly processed edible foods – such as french fries, refined flour pasta, hamburgers and sweetened beverages – to spread so rapidly around the world.

The “Western” diet has not only imposed itself through physical factors such as geopolitics and economics. It has also relied on a cultural superstructure that allowed it to change attitudes and thus change dietary and cultural habits in order to align them with the goals of the agro-industrial food system. All you need to do is look at the aggressive advertisements of big companies whose aim is to attract the attention of children and young people in order to train their tastes and eating habits from an early age. The table below on the situation in Colombia illustrates this.

School canteens and peasant agriculture

So far, the main meeting point between child nutrition and food sovereignty has been school canteens and public policies to promote peasant agriculture. Public school feeding programs are part of social policy in several countries around the world. Although these programs have shown to have a positive effect on both regular school attendance and improvement in nutritional status, coverage remains relatively low and is estimated at 15% of the child population. Countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa have important school feeding programs. In the case of Brazil, public school feeding policy aims to guarantee the right of pupils to a healthy diet and, for this reason, has been designed as part of the public policy to encourage local peasant agriculture by establishing a compulsory quota for the provision of at least 30 per cent of food from peasant agriculture to each school. Similar systems exist at the municipal level in Europe and the United States. See below the experience on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.

The transcendental importance of child nutrition

A healthy and nutritious diet is essential for the healthy development and growth of children during pregnancy. It is perhaps at this stage of human life that food is most important: not only does it lay the foundations for all subsequent physical and spiritual development, but it gives taste, aroma, flavour, colour and texture to the deepest bonds that connect us, through food, to our families and communities, and to our homeland.

Despite this transcendental importance, the movement for food sovereignty has given little thought to the issue of child nutrition. Is it because this topic is perceived as not being part of the traditional “male” sphere of power but rather related to the spaces associated with femininity and reproduction/childcare?

The fact is that major institutions and health professionals are defining the interpretation of this dimension of food. More recently, food and nutrition has become the focus of major corporate nutrition initiatives such as those of the Gates Foundation.

Several questions then arise: what is our understanding of child nutrition from a food sovereignty perspective? How do we build this perspective in dialogue with the children themselves, but also the teachers, cooks, farmers, vendors, midwives, health educators and others in charge of our food and our community health practices? How can we achieve a fair distribution of tasks and time devoted to reproductive care between mothers and fathers so as to feed our children in a healthy and nutritious way? Within our movement, it is time to give child nutrition the importance it deserves.